Government R&D plans off track

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Government R&D plans off track

The government on June 13 announced its research and development reform plan, which aims to effectively push forward research and development projects where state budget is spent.

According to the plan, the roles of corporate, university and state-invested research institutes will be clearly outlined, while cooperation among them will be strengthened. The plan also includes support programs for state-invested small and midsize companies; improvements in research and development planning and management systems; and the establishment of a state-run body to oversee the project.

That’s all great, but reforming research and development must start with changing the way government ministries act, rather than changing the researchers. It’s worrisome that the plan doesn’t seem to take this into consideration.

First, there is a need to clearly understand why we need to reform state-invested research and development. The advancement of science and technology has been fast and effective since the mid-1960s under a government-led top-down system. With economic growth, the government had some money to spare and various stakeholders came into the mix. During this process, projects increased and the government’s research and development budget rose fivefold, from about 4 trillion won ($3.57 billion) in 2000 to 19 trillion won in 2015.

Also, the number of research papers and patents - visible, measurable indicators - increased enormously.

But as economic growth slowed and the government began paying attention to its fiscal health, there was almost no possibility of the research and development budget snowballing as rapidly as it had in the past.

On the other hand, the quantity science and technology projects failed to have the same quality, and only a few research outcomes existed that could actually help improve society and the nation.

But we can see the problem when we look into the decision-making process regarding funding and relevant projects.

Right now, government agencies plan projects by recruiting people who are presumably experts in an effort to win the bids for funding. Then, projects that appear ambitious are selected, or the ministries persuade the Ministry of Planning and Finance by reporting them to the Blue House and obtaining approval by the National Assembly.

There is no discussion among ministries and no government body to mediate this process. When projects are partially concluded and a surplus is created, the public servants working under the ministry in charge have the right to use the money. At the same time, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance can also wield control over other ministries in regard to the budget, so those ministries then actively work to employ researchers with the right to commission projects and spend the allocated budget.

When this is repeated for decades, Korea’s research and development goes on focusing on no particular theme, and vast resources are wasted due to such fierce competition over funding.

In order to improve the situation, the previous administration created ministerial-level bodies, but those disappeared without a proper explanation. Currently, the National Science and Technology Council in the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning plays a similar role, but the expertise and power of this council - composed of many temporary committees - are questionable.

Then what will we have to do?

The answer is simple. A government office, which can plan projects beyond the interests of the ministries and monitor implementation, should create a national blue print for research and development; determine investment priorities; outline a direction and give assignments to the ministries. Project operations should realistically be delegated to researchers as much as possible.

Other problems can be resolved through a long-term strategy or by changing policies when the headquarters are established. For example, state-invested institutes should be independent from ministries in order to transform them and support small companies, just like the Fraunhofer Society, a German research organization. Terms for institute chiefs should be at least five to 10 years.

To simulate research at the university level, adding just one performance index would be a great improvement. In almost all advanced countries, universities act not only as the ivory tower, but also the growth engine. In Korea, however, research that holds commercial possibilities or activities by venture companies at universities are often considered to be a sort of “extramarital affair.”

The intervention and initiative by public servants have until now been meaningful because they could check researchers’ absolute reliance on government funding, and determine if individuals and institutes were exaggerating their expertise. But the time has come for a grand shift in this government-led system of research and development. At this point, the government needs to reform first, then present a new plan.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, July 3, Page 33

The author is a professor at Seoul National University and the chief strategy officer for ViroMed Co., Ltd.

by Kim Sun-young

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